Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy
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The Art of Getting Things Done

An interview with Allan Stam, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

On July 1, Allan Stam succeeded Harry Harding as dean of the Batten School. He previously served as director of the International Policy Center at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Stam’s academic work includes extensive research among sub-caste populations in India, as well as an analysis of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His books include Win, Lose, or Draw (1996), Democracies at War (2002) and The Behavioral Origins of War (2004).

Allan Stam
Dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

Batten Reports: How have you taken to Charlottesville and to U.Va. so far?

Allan Stam: Over the first three weeks, I met with many of the staff members, administrators, faculty and deans. Every single one of those interactions has been positive and has led me to conclude that this school has extraordinary possibilities. I look forward to substantial engagement with our students; by all accounts they are a remarkably diverse and strong cohort.

In terms of this community, virtually all of the people we met have been extraordinarily nice and welcoming. My wife and I are originally from small towns in New England. We’re both thrilled to be here.

BR: What do you see as the key goals for Batten over the next several years?

Stam: I see three sets of opportunities. The biggest and most important one is that there’s a growing consensus among concerned citizens in our society that America has something of a leadership gap, a teamwork gap, and is no longer living up to its potential. Yet few people have proposals for how to address that gap. I believe we need to fill that leadership gap by building leadership skills. For me, leadership is first and foremost the art of getting things done. 

The second policy area we’re going to focus on is health care which consumes roughly 17 percent of our country’s GDP. The United States spends more on healthcare [health care] than any other country on earth. Yet we don’t get the best outcomes, despite all that spending. We have unequal access, uneven delivery of care and inefficient provision of care.

The Batten School is going to engage vigorously in that area, committing both human and financial capital over the next few years. The way we'll do these kinds of things is the way we do everything at Batten: evidence-based, data-driven efforts. We exist in the reality-based universe, in the world as it is, and the way we know is through data and evidence. In this area, Batten is partnering with the School of Medicine and the Department of Public Health Sciences through our joint program, the Center for Health Policy.

The third substantive policy area we’re focusing on—also in collaboration with other units on Grounds—is education. Education, like health care, is something that people in the military like to refer to as a force multiplier. If we get education right, it affects every other part of our economy and society. It affects our local communities, our state, our country. Again, our efforts will be evidence-based. Our partners at the Curry School are doing fabulous research, with real-world applicability.

BR: One of the clear trends on the horizon is the management of growth at the school. How do you see that proceeding?

Stam: When this building was chosen for the Batten School, the planners did not envision a faculty of the scale that we’re going to have, and they did not envision this deep commitment to lab-based social psychology. So we have a space constraint at present that we are determined to remedy.

The U.Va. administration is deeply committed to this school succeeding and will partner with us in finding the space needed to accomplish our mission. Every indication I’ve received from the students, faculty, financial supporters and senior administration is that our mission is possible and that we’re going to make great changes for our students, our community and, ultimately, our society.

BR: Batten is one of the rare public policy schools with leadership in its name. What are the best approaches to teaching leadership in a manner worthy of the name?

Stam: Leadership and teamwork in the real world are about individuals making a difference in how groups of people function. Academics refer to that as individual agency: the power of an individual to independently shape outcomes.

The role that leadership and teamwork play in achieving better outcomes is not universally accepted, endorsed or supported by the academy. Rather, the academy is often skeptical about the study of leaders and leadership. We are going to be a part of changing that perception.

BR: Where does such skepticism come from?

Stam: The notion that individuals have both power and ability to alter the course of events is a view that harkens back to the Founding Fathers and to Jefferson’s reasons for founding this institution. Over the subsequent century, however, that view came under challenge—first by Marx and others, looking at the changes in industrial society, then in an academic sense by people like [Max] Weber and [Émile] Durkheim, the founding fathers of sociology. They argued that the power of industry, commerce and society is far greater than any individual’s ability to stand up to it.

So now we have tension between this revolutionary vision on the part of the people who founded the United States and founded U.Va. (the view that individuals can make a difference), and the view that the way we achieve greater things is not by empowering individuals but by creating better rules, better organizations.

BR: And you’ve just completed a book on this question of the role of leadership.

Stam: Over the past decade, I’ve been working on a book (with Michael Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania) about how individual leaders matter. The title of the book is Presidents, Kings, Dictators and War, and it’s slated to be published next year.

There’s a view among many academics today that it wouldn’t have mattered who was president in 2003—whether Al Gore or George Bush. We would’ve ended up at war with Iraq regardless. The idea is that there is no individual agency even among presidents.

We argue, however, that individual leaders really do make a difference and we can show that they do, using the data of academia. Not biography, but aggregate, quantitative data. At the end of the day, it’s individuals who make the choice. It’s Barack Obama, it’s George Bush, it’s Al Gore, it’s Mahatma Gandhi. In our data, if you want to point to one factor that’s most important for understanding a state’s decision to go to war, it’s leadership.

BR: Do you see a change, in the years ahead, in the mix of leadership teaching versus traditional policy teaching?

Stam: I see them as utterly complementary. When I talk to students, the message I convey is that they need to develop a few key skills to become effective change agents. They need skills in areas like policy analysis to be able to identify which things they want to accomplish. They need knowledge—to know a lot about something (not everything, but something) to demonstrate to the people on their team that they’re educable, that they can learn. Finally, they need a specific attitude—a commitment to leadership, teamwork, getting it done.

BR: How have your experiences prepared you for your role at the Batten School?

Stam: Before I became an academic, I did a number of different things that are not on the typical academic’s career track—ranging from participation in high-level sports to the military.

As I’ve said to colleagues here on Grounds, this is my dream job. This opportunity to help an organization like the Batten School move forward and achieve its goals—it’s an opportunity I’ve actually been in training for my entire career.

In American society, there are groups of people that intuitively understand leadership: many of these individuals have been engaged in sports, the military and business. They get it. They have to. In the world of sports, you reach a point where losers go home. In business, if you can’t make money and get your team to work together toward that goal, eventually the market drives you out of business. So if you’re a better leader, more tasks will flow to you. In the military, leadership is a matter of life and death. If you fail as a leader, people die.

Leaders hold people accountable. That has been my experience in athletics, in the military and in conversations with many of my friends who are small business owners. That’s a dominant theme among people I grew up with who are part of my nonacademic familial extended circle.

BR: In what respects is the Batten School unique in the community of public policy schools?

Stam: What is unique about the school is the constellation of different things that we do simultaneously. There are some schools with a commitment to social psychology that are not public policy schools. There are public policy schools with a commitment to evidence-based policy analysis. There are schools with a deep emphasis on undergraduate education. But no other schools have all those things. So here at Batten, the “difference maker” is the vision and concatenation of all of these disparate pieces, tied with a commitment to leadership, where leadership is the art of getting things done. That mindset is unique. We see this as a lifelong commitment to citizen engagement—from not just government, but business and community organizations and NGOs as well. We’re training people for their second, third and fourth job, not just their first job.

BR: Will you teach in the classroom?

Stam: Yes, in the long run, I look forward to teaching again. In the short run, however, I'll be building new ties for the Batten School both on Grounds and around the country. I need to create new relationships. For the first year or 18 months, that will necessitate a traveling schedule not conducive to teaching. In the second or third year, I’ll start teaching again: a course on leadership, grand strategy, military and diplomatic history.

BR: If you were a new student at Batten, what classes would you want to sign up for first?

Stam: I’d take the psychology of leadership with Eileen Chou. She’s a great teacher, and one of the things we know in higher education is that teachers matter as much as the subject. The substantive material in that course is very important and will serve them well for the rest of their lives.